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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

"Four Star Tour" Dinner, Course 3:   Chilled Crab with Mango, Red Onion & Creme Fraiche

This is the sixth in a series of posts directed to a holiday dinner party that I recently held at my home, for which I put together a six-course menu comprised of dishes inspired by the Bay Area's four-star chefs.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Intro | Menu Planning, Pt. 1 | Menu Planning, Pt. 2 | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Closing

On my last visit to The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton a few months ago, I had the pleasure of sampling several extraordinary creations from executive chef Ron Siegel.   One of these was the Chilled Crab, a timbale comprised of champagne mango and red onion compote as its base and lump crabmeat sitting above it.   Lightly dressed microgreens were set atop the crab, and drops of shiso oil decorated the perimeter of the plate.   The flavors melded together beautifully.   I unfortunately have never seen a recipe for this spectacular dish, nor am I entirely sure what Siegel put into his delicious compote or how he seasoned his crab.   But given how much I enjoyed this item at the restaurant, I was excited to try to create something similar for my menu.

From the first time I sat down to think about how to compose this dish, I had an urge to add something that Siegel's version did not include:   crème fraiche.   I wasn't exactly sure where this idea came from or why I felt so strongly about it, but I ultimately decided that there was no reason to fight it.   And so I began the process of figuring out a way to combine crab, mango, red onion and crème fraiche into something that would be satisfying.

My first thought was to put a mixture of red onion and diced mango in the bottom of a ring mold, top it with a thin layer of crème fraiche, and then top that with some crabmeat.   But as I tried to visualize this, it occurred to me that it might be a challenge to make the layer of crème fraiche look uniform and unmessy.   To get around this, I considered putting the red onion and mango mixture on the bottom, crab immediately above it, and then a dollop of crème fraiche sitting on top.   Although this had the potential of being visually appealing, my fear was that the flavors would not be integrated enough.   In other words, I didn't want my guests taking bites with no crème fraiche, nor did I want them taking bites with too much crème fraiche.   That led me to the obvious solution of mixing the crème fraiche into the crab - a rudimentary crab salad of sorts that could then sit on top of the red onion and mango mixture.
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There's more...
Figuring that I had the basic structure down, I then began thinking about the relative proportions of the four ingredients.   How much mango per ounce of crab?   How much crème fraiche per ounce of mango?   How much red onion per ounce of crème fraiche?   And with this last question, I suddenly recalled a conversation that I had had with my good friend and co-worker "A" a few months earlier.   You see, A and I are both big fans of the Thomas Keller amuse bouche known as the Salmon Cone, and on the day in question, A and I were sitting in my office enjoying a batch that A had whipped up at home the weekend before.   As I bit into the buttery, black-sesame-laden cone and tasted the lemon-oil-punctuated salmon set off against the cool, red onion crème fraiche, I jokingly said "you know, you could probably put this red onion crème fraiche on anything and make it taste delicious."   Well, I thought, why not use Keller's recipe for guidance on the ideal ratio of red onion to crème fraiche in the context of the crab dish that I was trying to put together?   Better yet, why not use Keller's red onion crème fraiche itself, and mix it directly into the crab?   And once that's done, why leave the mango out on its own - why not mix that into the crab as well?

At this point, I felt that the basic dish was done, but I wanted to add some greens on top to follow Siegel's original dish more closely.   I have yet to find a good source for the type of microgreens that the top-tier restaurants use, so I opted instead for one of my favorite regular greens - mache.   I wanted a dressing that would be light and bright, so a citrus component struck me as being appropriate.   On a visit to the Ferry Building farmers' market a few weeks before my party, I happened upon a delicious Lisbon Lemon Olive Oil from Stonehouse, as well as an equally tasty White Balsamic Vinegar from the same company.   A dressing made from the two of these, I surmised, would be exactly what I was looking for.

Recipe, Tweaks, Tips and Techniques

The recipe that I used for the Chilled Crab dish on my menu is not at all difficult, but there are a couple of tips that I can pass along.   First, unless you have a lot of time on your hands and a great deal of patience, buy cooked lump crabmeat from your favorite store rather than trying to cook it yourself.   Second, mix the crab salad before your guests arrive;   it can sit in the refrigerator for quite some time without any adverse effect on its flavor or texture, and mixing it in advance will save you a lot of stress and time.   And finally, keep in mind that personal preferences can vary regarding the ideal amount of red onion crème fraiche and/or mango to be blended into the crab, so adjust these according to your own tastes.

The recipe set forth below is the one that I used the night of my dinner party.   The only "specialized" equipment referenced in the following recipe is a 3" by 1.5" ring mold:

Chilled Crab with Mango, Red Onion & Crème Fraiche
Inspired by Ron Siegel, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton

  • 1 1/2 lbs. cooked, shelled lump crabmeat
  • 2 7.5 oz. containers crème fraiche
  • 4 T finely minced red onions
  • 1-2 large mangoes, skin removed, cored, and finely diced (1/4" cubes)
  • salt, to taste
  • white pepper, to taste

  • 3 oz. mache
  • 3 T Lisbon Lemon Olive Oil (or other lemon flavored olive oil)
  • 1 T White Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/8 t Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 t salt, or to taste
  • 1/8 t freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1.   In a small bowl, combine crème fraiche and red onion.   Mix well.   Add white pepper to taste;   add salt until detectable when tasted, but do not salt fully at this stage.

2.   Place crab in a large mixing bowl.   Add one half of crème fraiche mixture and stir well with a fork.   (Note that this process of stirring may break apart some of the bigger pieces of crab, which is actually fine.)   Taste crab mixture, and add additional crème fraiche as desired.   (I ended up using approximately 3/4 of the crème fraiche mixture with which I started, but you may prefer more or less.)   Add salt to taste.   Stir in diced mango from first mango;   add additional diced mango to taste.   (I used only one mango, but you may prefer more.)   Cover and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 12 hours).

3.    Prepare vinaigrette:   whisk vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper together in a small bowl.   Slowly whisk in the olive oil in a thin, steady stream until well blended and emulsified.   Cover and refrigerate.

4.   To serve, place 3" by 1.5" ring mold in center of plate.   Place approximately 3 oz. of crab mixture into ring mold, and press down gently with back of spoon so as to create a flat top surface.   (Note that the crab will not completely fill the ring mold.)   Gently and slowly lift the ring mold, while pushing the crab mixture down (especially in the areas nearest the inside of the ring) with the back of a spoon.   Repeat for other plates.

5.   Place mache in mixing bowl.   Add dressing to taste and toss.   (Note that you will likely have a good amount of extra dressing left over.)   Place approximately 1/4 oz. of dressed mache on top of crab.   Serve.

Yields 12 servings.


Anonymous pn said...

For those of you who have never experienced the pleasure of dining au Chez N.S., there is a striking similarity between his Dinners and his Blog. You can tell from his postings, that he puts a tremendous amount of time preparing each posting, tweaking it, refining it. Between the writing, the design and the photography, you can almost taste the food.

His Dinners are no different. Nothing is rushed, pacing is slow (he's the only chef for 12 people!)every detail is considered, and the result is spectacular, both to the palette and the eye.

So, to all you readers like me who keep checking back for the writeup of the next course, you're already getting a feel for what it's like eating at chez N.S.

Waiting anxiously for Course 4...


December 14, 2005 11:43 PM  
Blogger NS said...

PN: Thanks for the kind words - your check is in the mail! In all seriousness, it's having great friends like PN and all of the others who attended my dinner parties this year that makes the effort truly enjoyable and worthwhile. I feel fortunate to know such wonderful people, and to be able to count them among my friends.

And in that regard, I should also point out that PN gives me too much credit; I would never be able to pull off any of these parties without the incredible assistance, panache, good humor, artistic flair, and hosting acumen of Rhonda - my co-host, co-chef and closest confidante. The debt of gratitude that I owe her simply cannot be reduced to words!

December 19, 2005 10:45 AM  
Anonymous CADem said...

The chilled crab was simply the best of a fabulous set of courses. The flavors were so exhilirating and the textures so perfect that the dish so stimulated the senses that it probably can't be served in most of the South for violating some sort of blue law.

I echo NS's remarks about Rhonda. Not only is she obviously a tremendous help to NS in the planning and execution of the dishes, she is also a gracious and engaging hostess to guests while NS is in the kitchen.

December 20, 2005 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Rhonda said...

Thanks, guys, for your very kind words. N, you know that sous-chef is much more appropriate for me than co-chef; as for the rest, I'll endeavor to live up to your descriptions during our next dinner party! I am happy to share hosting and kitchen duties with NS from time to time. Few things bring me greater joy.

December 20, 2005 4:53 PM  

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